Air raids and clashes in East Qalamoun amid negotiations for rebel surrender

AMMAN: Government warplanes heavily bombed a pocket of rebel-held territory in the mountains northeast of Damascus on Wednesday, after clashes broke out this week between opposition forces and the Syrian army there for the first time in months.

Increased violence in the East Qalamoun pocket comes as embattled opposition forces are reportedly negotiating a surrender agreement with Russian representatives. Wednesday’s air raids came during the run-up to a crucial meeting slated to take place in Damascus on Thursday.

“The regime, from last night until now, has been bombing East Qalamoun continuously,” said Omar al-Qalamouni, a media activist from the town of al-Ruheibah. “The planes and helicopters have not stopped, and there have been dozens of barrel bombs and rockets.”

A military source from the Forces of Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo, a local Free Syrian Army (FSA) faction, told Syria Direct over 75 barrel bombs and 150 missiles struck rebel positions around the East Qalamoun area of Jabal Sharqi, north of the Damascus suburbs.

Fighters with Jaish Tahrir a-Sham in East Qalamoun. Photo courtesy of Jaish Tahrir a-Sham

Local pro-opposition media also reported ground battles late Wednesday afternoon around the town of al-Ruheibah in Jabal Sharqi, as government forces launched a new offensive against rebel groups in the area.

Hostilities initially broke out in East Qalamoun on Sunday when fighters with the Ahmad al-Abdo brigade and the FSA-affiliated Jaish Tahrir a-Sham faction briefly seized four military points from the Syrian army in sparsely-populated territory north of Jabal Sharqi.

The combined rebel forces withdrew from those positions shortly after taking them, according Suleiman al-Qalamouni, a military commander with Ahmad al-Abdo, who described “hit and run” engagements.

Syrian government warplanes responded with air raids against rebel frontlines this week before training their fire on rebel positions around Jabal Sharqi on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Coinciding with the fighting, official negotiations began on Tuesday between Russian representatives and the Unified Command in East Qalamoun, an umbrella group encompassing several rebel factions in the area.

While the Ahmad al-Abdo brigade is party to the Unified Command-led negotiations, Jaish Tahrir a-Sham has thus far refused to participate in any discussions.

Opposition forces have held the mountainous East Qalamoun region, located approximately 50 kilometers northeast of Damascus, since the early days of the Syrian conflict in 2012. However, the rebel-controlled area has diminished considerably in recent years after a series of Syrian government offensives.

Marwan al-Qadi, a spokesperson for the Unified Command, worries that the past two days of airstrikes are part of a strategy to force the rebels’ hand in negotiations scheduled for Thursday.

“What happened in Qalamoun is what happens in all areas where there are negotiations,” he told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “The Russians negotiate, and the regime bombs.”

“We have before us only displacement or war.”

With additional reporting by Waleed a-Noufal.

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut.